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Riverside Drive's Concrete Blight Is Back on Political Agenda

July 25, 1991|DOUG SMITH

A monument to commercial miscalculation and political muddle has stood for two years now on a spot that must have once been an appealing place.

It is a concrete wall, giant, purposeless and grotesquely incomplete. It seems to be waiting for someone to come along and knock it down.

It rises above that stretch of Riverside Drive southeast of Glendale Boulevard where the Golden State Freeway and a bend in the Los Angeles River press up against the hillsides on the fringes of Silver Lake.

Before the freeway, this was a gateway to some of the city's most appealing public works. To the northwest are the Hyperion Bridge, the Breakfast Club (now Friendship Auditorium), the Mulholland Fountain and the entrance to Griffith Park.

But for three decades after the freeway was squeezed between the river and the road, the half-mile strip of Riverside remained a hissing, barren drag.

The building boom of the 1980s caught up with this large piece of unused land. A developer named Hal Klein acquired it and, in 1987, got building permits for 288 apartment units, which he intended to build in three stages, working from Glendale Boulevard to Fletcher Drive.

Klein's conception of style and residential amenity was as sparse as the setting--stark boxes set end-to-end upon a continuous enclosure of iron grillwork for the automobiles.

The Silver Lake Residents Assn. was unhappy with the density of the project as well as its appearance. There wasn't any great grass-roots strength to the argument, though, since the only group that would actually be confronted with this image, day after day, would be commuters on the Golden State Freeway.

Compounding the area's physical isolation was its political Balkanization. Just as Klein was developing his plans, the Northeast area was being reshaped in a redistricting of the Los Angeles City Council ordered by the federal government to strengthen Latino voting power. The result left Klein's land in the remote eastern corner of the 13th District of Councilman Michael Woo. Across Riverside Drive was the new territory of John Ferraro, who displaced Joel Wachs in the redistricting. In the other direction, across Fletcher Drive was the new 1st District, later won by Gloria Molina.

Consequently, the displeasure over Klein's project found no political champion.

The first phase, consisting of 160 apartments, was nearly completed two years ago amid growing signs of stress on Klein's finances.

In the hopes that rent money would fuel the flagging project, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety issued temporary permits of occupancy with a number of details left unfinished. Since then, some of the units have been rented.

Meanwhile, Klein's company began to erect the wall. Because the terrain on the Fletcher Drive side was steeper, a retaining wall was needed to support the 128 units still planned. Consistent with the overall bleak design, the styling chosen was solid concrete slabs, about 40 feet high and 120 feet long and resembling the armor plating of a battleship.

The concrete was poured into iron forms held up by girders. Some of the forms were removed and some left behind when the work stopped almost two years ago.

In its last gasp, Klein's company rolled plastic sheets down the exposed hillside and deposited a stack of fresh lumber there.

For the next 18 months, the only process in evidence was aging. The plastic melted away and the lumber turned white and brittle under the elements.

The creeping blight brought complaints to the office of Councilman Woo. These were passed on to the Department of Building and Safety, where the problem has been under review, so far without resolution.

Woo's senior field deputy, Diana Brueggemann, said the city found itself with little leverage to press compliance because Klein's company was, by then, in bankruptcy.

The latest wrinkle is that the lender, First Interstate Bank, took the property by foreclosure April 30.

First Interstate's assets manager, Tom Pattenaude, said the bank is committed to cleaning up the property as soon as possible, but he said it was too soon to determine whether the bank will try to pursue Klein's plan as is.

In the meantime, Don Johnson, who monitors the project for the Silver Lake Residents Assn., contends that the original plan is dead because the building permits have expired through inactivity. He said the zoning has changed since the original permits were issued and now the maximum is 217 units instead of 288.

If Johnson is right, that would allow only 57 more units to be built, raising the question whether there is any further use for the wall.

At the very least, the blight on Riverside Drive has been put back on the political agenda.

It would appear that Woo now has the leverage, if he wants to use it, to demand that the wall come down and that a new plan use imagination in place of brute engineering to fit the development onto the hillside.

On the other hand, the wall has become a part of the national banking mess. Everyone is paying for that, and it might be wise if all could agree on a solution that would ease the burden.

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